Chef Marcus Samuelsson comes to New Orleans Friday to sign his new book and honor a New Orleans great.

Photo of Chef Marcus Samuelsson
In Yes Chef, Marcus Samuelsson explores his identity twice. The book is first and foremost about his journey as a chef, one who started cooking with his grandmother when he was a child in Sweden; but it is also about his discovery of his ethnic identity. He and his sister were adopted by his Swedish parents after his birth mother died of TB and he and his sister almost did as well. His journey from Sweden to New York City has been driven by his progress through some of the great kitchens of Europe, and it ended - for book purposes - with Samuelsson winning season two of Bravo's Top Chef Masters at the same time that he and his staff cooked for President Obama's first State Dinner and he opened his restaurant, The Red Rooster in Harlem. Along the way, he returned to Ethiopia, where he learned that his birth father was still alive with a family of brothers and sisters he had never known, and he developed a relationship with the daughter he fathered in a recreational relationship.

Samuelsson will be in New Orleans on Friday for two events. From noon to 2 p.m., he will be at The Whole Foods Market in Metairie on Veterans Memorial Boulevard to sign copies of Yes Chef.  That night, he and Chef John Besh will cook a special dinner at Restaurant August in honor of Dooky Chase's Leah Chase. "I always admire Leah and what she stands for," Samuelsson says by phone.

He first met Chase in the '90s when she was to receive an award, and in Yes Chef, he writes:

In 1948, Leah Chase decided to open a restaurant in the Lower Ninth of New Orleans. How much room did this country make for her, as a black female chef, at that time? She didn't care. She didn't ask to be lauded or ordained by the food community; she just went ahead and did it. As Leah always says, "The hood needs good food, too."

"She's very inspirational for me as I'm inspired by African-American chefs who came before me," he says. "Think about it: From the late '40s to know, how many people have come to see her. As an African American, we're still looking for more people of color to come into this industry."

In Yes Chef, Samuelsson finds the emphasis put on French cuisine oppressive, and with each stop in his life, whether in a country for a job or in a port while cooking on a cruise ship, he wondered how indigenous ingredients and techniques could be incorporated into fine dining. He attributes some of this to starting in Sweden. "You can eat well without a cuisine being known," he says. "We ate seasonal. We ate farm to table before that was a term. We ate organic. We had to pickle and preserve. We took care of the land and the ocean. It was a very good place for me to learn." Although he learned technique and discipline in Michelin three-star restaurants, many of the lessons that most shaped his cooking came from peasant cooking around the world. "Poor man's cooking is what we celebrate in Harlem at my restaurant, The Red Rooster," Samuelsson says. "The whole idea of being poor and eating well."

That interest draws him to New Orleans as well, and when he planned the menu for Friday night's dinner, he wanted to do something that reflects his take on New Orleans' rich and complex past and its future. "As chefs today, we live in a multicultural world; New Orleans was really the birthplace of the cuisine from that," he says. "So many dishes have French nuances to it but also African nuances to it and Spanish nuances to it. As a curious chef, you want to go to birthplaces of great food."

What does he have to eat when he comes to New Orleans? "Po-boys," Samuelsson says with just a trace of sheepishness. "We roll up to Dooky's and order them, then eat them on the plane."


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